Games to look forward to in 2013: Lightning Returns

They say that Lightning never strikes twice. So far for the Final Fantasy XIII series, it hasn’t even struck once.

They say that Lightning never strikes twice. So far for the Final Fantasy XIII series, it hasn’t even struck once. So when I place the latest desperate attempt from SquareEnix to get us to love them again, it probably has to be justified more than any other, because this is an optimism that has been built on a solid foundation of disappointment, heartbreak and sheer masochism.

I know, folks. I know how bad Final Fantasy XIII has been as a franchise, how abjectly awful this has been for Final Fantasy fans like myself. Gone is the open-world exploration in favour of some endless Crash Bandicoot-esque corridor. What about the sidequests that allowed you to engage with other characters, learn more about the motivations of the individuals that make up whatever world you’re in, and indeed the world itself? Oh, you won’t have time for sidequests, there are corridors to go down.

What’s so upsetting about this as well is that I love Final Fantasy. I absolutely adore it; even Final Fantasy XII, which led me to be ostracized by my friends and spat at in the street. I love the characters that Final Fantasy has given us, the stories, the villains, the aforementioned sidequests. All of it.

Final Fantasy VI, in particular, is my archetypal RPG; a strong, engaging plot with a dizzying amount of party members, each with their own struggles and motivations, working together to take down an evil psychotic mage-clown who wants to destroy the world because of his own inner madness and nihilistic hatred of everyone and everything in the world. Plus, the entire second half of the game is just a way to explore, where you can either go straight to the villain’s lair after about a half an hour, or discover the world itself. It’s explorative, it’s everything that’s good about an RG encapsulated in one game.

Compare that with Final Fantasy XIII’s nine corridors of hell and you begin to understand how disappointed I was when it came out.

So why would another game in the series entice me? Largely because the mathematically confusing Final Fantasy XIII-2 was, whilst by no means perfect, certainly a far more engaging experience. While still largely based around the now world-famous corridor theory, now you could go into corridors from different times as well as different places, giving the game a much more open-ended feel from the first one.

Alright, it was ripping off Chrono Trigger to a suspiciously large amount, but it’s a damn good game to rip off. In addition, whilst the main characters themselves continued its predecessor’s fine tradition of being insufferable idiots with the personalities of morally pious cloth sacks, the villain was actually engaging. Whilst Final Fantasy XIII’s Fal’cie did their villainy in a way that suggested they were just doing it to be jerks, its sequel’s villain, Caius Ballad (yes, that’s his actual name), was a far more well-rounded and tragic figure, and a certain degree of sympathy can be granted to him, in the vein of all best villains.

However, as I said, the Final Fantasy XIII series hasn’t really had a great moment yet, and whilst Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a far better game, it still suffers from the previously aforementioned terrible characters, the Final Fantasy XIII battle system which seeks to really exercise your ability to continuously press the A button, and some truly atrocious dialogue. It’s a game that basically seems as if it was written with the words “plot MacGuffin” Find-and-Replaced at the end of writing by the word “paradox”.

In fact, if you’re not having fun with the game itself, you can create your own game involving copious amounts of alcohol being imbued at the mention of the word paradox.

However, as I said, I’m cautiously optimistic about this one. The gameplay mechanic of FFXIII: Lightning Returns sounds vaguely interesting, basically stopping the rip-off of Chrono Trigger in favour of ripping off Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. It seems to be based around the last thirteen days of the world, but because Lightning is the most capable fictional character since Superman, time can be reversed, rewritten, and all that other stuff that gets crowbarred into something of a science-fiction genre to make it seem oh-so-bloody-clever (Steven Moffat does this a lot in Doctor Who).

Also, they’ve streamlined the combat. Well, they’d have to; for the first time in a Final Fantasy game, you control only one person in battles. Yes, Lightning is tired of her superhuman abilities being held back by her dumb friends and has gone solo, Ronan Keating style. Unfortunately, there’s no word on how it’ll work, but from the trailer that was recently released it looks like it’ll be a little less reliant on the Auto-Attack button of previous installments. However, the trailer tells us very little else, being largely pre-rendered and full of the sort of ominous portents that are put into bad fan-fiction by fourteen year olds.

So, despite everything rational in my mind screaming past sins, I’m cautiously optimistic that this time, it’ll really be a Final Fantasy I can be proud of. You may be wondering why; after all I’ve spent the last several paragraphs tearing into the series with some enthusiasm. However, I will state that, despite all the flaws I discussed about Final Fantasy XIII-2, it still holds a treasured place in my heart, possibly because it was at least trying. Despite its flaws, the time-travel mechanic did actually add to a sense of open world gameplay. The ability to visit the same places in different times too was a novel experience, allowing us to see the changing attitudes of the time.

If Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns tries to give us a similar level of an actual gaming experience as well, instead of a corridor-searching jamboree, then we might actually be in for a real treat. Forget lightning returning, lightning might actually strike once.

Third time’s a charm, eh?

Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns is due for release this autumn on the XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles.

What are you looking forward to most about the game? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

This piece is part of a series on what games to look forward to in 2013.